★★★ / ★★★★
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), born as Michael Peterson, wanted one thing in life: To become famous. But where he lived at the time didn’t offer a lot of opportunities. Despite being raised in a relatively normal family, at school, he bullied other students and attacked teachers. Over time, he learned to rely on his fist instead of his brain. After robbing a post office, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. His term lasted more than thirty years and most of that time was spent under solitary confinement because of Broson’s hunger for violence. He was convinced that he could become famous for being the most violent prisoner in the country. And he was right. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Bronson,” based on a true story, was a painful look at a man who couldn’t discern between his true self and his alter ego. Others treated him as a bomb waiting to go off. In most of the scenes in which he was allowed to interact with other people, we felt nervous for the unsuspecting individuals because Bronson was, to say the least, highly unpredictable. We weren’t sure if, when there was a disagreement, big or small, he would decide to walk away from the situation or commit bloody murder. The movie had an interesting technique in telling Bronson’s story. There were times when he talked directly to the camera and made jokes out of extremely serious situations. It worked because while I feared him, I felt pity for him as well. What the man needed was a psychiatric evaluation and to be placed in a stable mental institution, not passing him around from one jail to another like an unwanted rag doll. While Bronson’s proclivity for violence was probably innate, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that violence, especially in prisons, only led to more violence. Hardy’s performance was completely electrifying (and terrifying). He was fearless in embracing Bronson’s bellicose nature yet there were profoundly quiet moments, like when he would stare at his art, where we were allowed to ponder that maybe there was true humanity underneath his muscular exterior. I also enjoyed that sometimes the film was shot like a fantasy story. A prime example was when he was freed from prison because keeping him inside cost Britain a lot of money. It didn’t feel real and I began to wonder if he really was out in the world or it was just his own way of dealing with being in solitary confinement for so long. “Bronson,” surreal, eccentric, savage, was a strange journey because we ended up right where we started. I admired the way it challenged me as I juggled feelings of fear and sympathy for someone who lost track of reality.
Animal Kingdom (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
J (James Frecheville) passively watched his mother die from heroin overdose. He didn’t know what to pay attention to: the program being broadcast on television or his mother’s last attempts for air. Still under eighteen years old, he felt like he had no choice but to contact his grandmother Janine (Jackie Weaver) because he didn’t know what to with his mother’s corpse. J was reluctant to seek help because his mother did not want anything to do with her siblings (Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford) because she knew of their criminal activities. “Animal Kingdom” was an involving thriller because we were asked to empathize with a minor who had no idea what he was getting himself into. A family is supposed to be a group of people that we can go to and seek comfort but his family is not like our families. They sold drugs for a living and whoever got in the way had to die. Holding a gun to someone’s head was as familiar as offering a helping hand. J living in the Cody household was an uncomfortable experience at best. His uncles had an almost incestuous relationship with their mother. When J’s girlfriend was over, one of the uncles eyed her up and down like a vulture, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. J acknowledged that fear was always in the air but he didn’t know what everyone was afraid of. Were they afraid to get caught by the police? Were they afraid of each other? Perhaps it was both. There was no room for laughter or a harmless joke because the uncles had such volatile personalities. The audiences were like a person tied to a chair and we just waited for them to explode. As the innocent and the guilty dropped like flies, sometimes for no good reason, desperation challenged the characters to reevaluate their loyalties. Enter Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), a cop who saw J as an innocent. He believed J could be saved by putting his family behind bars. Leckie convinced J that he could offer protection but the promise didn’t last for long. Someone had deep connections in the force. Written and directed by David Michôd, “Animal Kingdom” was an Australian thriller of the highest caliber because it was able to draw us in and play with our expectations. Just like animals, especially those that lived in the deepest oceans, the harmless-looking characters ended up the most venomous. Stripped of gangster glamour and incendiary Tarantino-esque dialogue, Michôd made an argument that when crime is added in the equation, like animals in the jungle, people will do absolutely anything to survive. Is there crime in that?
Deliver Us from Evil (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since the mid-1970s (and most likely years prior), Father Oliver O’Grady had been sexually molesting children that ranged from infants to pre-adolescents. The Catholic Church was well-aware of his sickness but instead of kicking him out of priesthood, the Church simply moved him from one area to another, which allowed him to molest other children when it could have been prevented. As the film went on, we had a chance to learn that O’Grady not only took advantage of hundreds of children but he also had sexual relations with some of their parents. I was raised Catholic so I understood the importance of the feelings the parents and the children, now adults, felt when they discovered that a person from the Church, an institution that they are willing to give their lives to for the sake of their god, committed the ultimate betrayal. I don’t consider myself belonging in a specific religious group, but when I saw the families being interviewed about how O’Grady ruined their lives, I could not help but imagine my own family and relatives in their shoes because it could easily have happened to any of us. The film made a smart decision to take the blame and the shame from O’Grady to the higher figures in the Church. It was a maddening experience because there was plenty of evidence regarding the Church’s attempt to protect the priests guilty of pedophilia. According to the statistics, the Church spent a billion dollars (and counting) to cover-up many families’ search for justice. To know that those people who are considered by the Catholic community to be the prime example of purity, to commit such acts is not only criminal but also immoral. If hell did exist, in my opinion, they are certainly deserving to go there. The higher folks in the hierarchy, indirectly involved as they may be, knew of the disease in their community, they had tools to prevent future crimes from happening, yet they chose the path of indifference with impunity. Written and directed by Amy Berg, “Deliver Us from Evil” was not simply about one religion or faith. It’s about human rights. Imagine if you’ve raped by a member of the police force and the government, designed to protect its people, turns a blind eye to the fact. I make the comparison because the film successfully showed that the Catholic Church functions like a government with its bureaucracies and failure to serve its people even in the most fundamental ways. This is a must-see film because popular culture makes a lot of jokes about priests molesting kids. A lot of people laugh off the issue but what about those who have to live with the experience and had not found some sort of closure? Do we dare laugh in their faces?
The Last Emperor (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★
Five high school students who personify a geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a jock (Emilio Estevez), a basket case (Ally Sheedy) and a criminal (Judd Nelson) spent a Saturday in detention under the eyes of a begrudged principal (Paul Gleason). The picture’s argument was the fact that although we label ourselves (or others label us) to be in a specific category in the high school social strata, we can relate with each of the five characters because we share one commonality: in high school, all of us are just hoping to get by and waiting for our lives to actually begin. The film was astute in observing the teenagers while they interacted with each other and when they were on their own. Even if the characters were not saying anything or if they were just on the background, I was able to read them and I thought of things that they might have been thinking at the time. Having been released in era where typical teen flicks were abound, “The Breakfast Club” almost immediately gained a cult following because of its honesty, right amount of cheesiness, and cathartic quality. My favorite scene was toward the end when the five were in a circle and decided to share why they were sent to detention. I liked the fact that it wasn’t a typical “sharing time” where everybody was solemn and serious all the time. They were actually able to make jokes toward and around each other in between discussing their issues. It made me think of me and my friends when would do the same thing. Out of the five, I could relate to Hall’s character the most (and a bit of Ringwald’s because of her slight conceitedness). It made me think of the way I was in high school concerning my penchant (or perhaps even obsession) for getting straight A’s. It got to the point where getting straight A’s was something that I expected of myself instead of something that I had to strive for. I remember being so hard on myself for making small mistakes when, looking back on it, I didn’t really need to. Now that I’m older, I just think of grades as letters on a piece of paper and nothing more. They don’t define us and they certainly don’t dictate what we can offer the world. The difference between me and Hall’s character was my parents did not pressure me into getting the perfect grade point average. However, I can just imagine how it must have been like for other students who were not so lucky–those that jumped off buildings in college because they felt a need to have the “perfect academic record” to have a “secure future.” Written and directed by the legendary John Hughes, I thought he did a wonderful job capturing the essence of teenagers despite their place in the high school hierarchy.
A Prophet (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
19-year-old Arab named Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) was sentenced up to six years in prison. Taken under César Luciani’s wing (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican, Malik slowly gained power in prison as he learned the politics and economics among each group of inmates. I liked that the plot was relatively simple. We had a chance to observe a vulnerable man evolve into someone who was cunning and capable of deceit yet the story was able to hang onto the core of the lead character’s being. That is, despite the difficult decisions he had to make, he was still capable of being sympathetic to those that helped turn him into a kind of person he had become. Those individuals did not always deserve his sympathy but he hung onto them anyway perhaps because he respected them in some way. His relationships with the other prisoners was always at the forefront and the “favors” he had to do were secondary but both are just as gripping. Jacques Audiard, the director, could have easily turned this film into a typical prison movie about a man hardened by hatred over the years but it chose the more insightful and elegant path. It begged the question how far a person was willing to go in order to survive and eventually flourish in a very dangerous environment, it challenged the effectiveness of rehabilitation centers, and it questioned whether a person, when given a chance, could leave behind his criminal life. Rahim was fantastic in portraying lead character. At times the movie would jump forward in time and I found myself unable to recognize Malik at first glance. Surely there were some physical changes but the way he carried himself such as his posture and the manner in which he conversed with another were more interesting to watch. Despite the film not showing us certain periods of time, we still got the sense that the hardships that Malik had to face did not stop. I did, however, have a problem with its running time of more than two-and-a-half hours. I saw no reason for it to last that long. In fact, I thought the last twenty minutes, except for the final scene, were weak and more typical compared the rest of the picture. It became redundant instead of ending it in a place where it left us wondering whether or not he would choose to risk losing everything he worked for over the years. Nevertheless, I believe “A Prophet” is worth seeing because it did not lose its heart despite the violence and drugs. It really made me question what I would have done (assuming I survived in the first place) if I was in Malik’s position. I certainly could not imagine hiding razor blades in my mouth.
The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Tony Scott directed this thriller about a criminal (John Travolta) with a mysterious reason for taking a train full hostages. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) thought it was just another day in regular train traffic, but once he got a call from the mastermind of the hostage situation, he had to think quickly and act swiftly to get to the right authorities and bargain for the lives of the hostages. For a hostage movie, “The Taking of Pelham 123” should have been more exciting. For me, only the first hour of the picture really worked because Travolta and Washington’s characters constantly tried to measure each other up; they were both smart characters and each had their own flaws and far from innocent past. The mindgames they played with each other was more interesting than the last forty-five minutes’ car crashes, quick cuts aided by random blasting of music and gunfires. In fact, the last forty-five minutes was drenched in typicality, it was hard for me to sit through because I knew where it was heading. That excitement and spark that it had in the first half were completely elimated and I somewhat lost interest. I thought the supporting actors (who are usually great in other films) such as James Gandolfini (as the mayor), John Turturro (as a professional hostage negotiator) and Luis Guzmán (as one of the three criminals) were not pushed enough to make their characters come alive and make a significant impact in the story. Their characters could have been played by other actors and the movie would essentially have been the same. I also believe the movie had some serious problems when it comes to logic. For instance, the extended chase sequence near the end could have been completely avoided if the police had put trackers in any of the money bags. Since the police would know the exact positions of the criminals, the movie would not have wasted fifteen minutes of its time showing confusion and chaos. Overall, “The Taking of Pelham 123” isn’t really a bad movie because more than half of it was right on track (pardon the pun). It’s just that it tried too hard to inject that Hollywood way of storytelling where a big chase sequence is a requisite. For a movie having characters who exuded edginess and intelligence, the movie was pretty dull and safe.